A Sugar-Code Tweaked with Fluorine Against Meningitis

The innovative combination of complex sugars and fluorine is a promising initial step towards developing more effective vaccines against some bacteria that cause meningitis. The compound designed by Peter Seeberger and Ryan Gilmour (University of Münster) triggered a strong immune response in mice and shows potential as a platform for developing future vaccines against multiple bacterial strains.




Sugars are everywhere. And the complex sugars (glycans) on the surface of every cell act like barcodes: our bodies scan them to determine whether an element belongs inside or is an external pathogen. Bacteria, for example, are coated with a sugar capsule that our body recognizes as foreign and prepares to attack.

This mechanism underpins the joint efforts by Peter Seeberger at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces and Ryan Gilmour at the University of Münster against meningitis, a disease with a high death toll worldwide, especially among children. Their goal was to design what scientists call a vaccine lead: a promising compound that could, in the future and after human clinical trials, become a viable vaccine.

To achieve this, they combined their strengths. Seeberger specializes in synthesizing sugars that resemble those found on pathogens – through automated and controlled processes in the lab rather than deriving them from bacteria. Gilmour is an expert in fluorination – adding fluorine to molecules to fine-tune their properties. Together they created a sugar-based barcode that closely matches that of some strains of meningococcus, a bacterium that causes meningitis.

Fluorine proved to be the crucial addition, a kind of alarm bell built into the sugar-code. When our organism scans the resulting compound, it detects the presence of fluorine, which does not occur naturally in sugars, and thus activates a powerful immune response.
This is what happened in mice, where scientists observed a strong and long-lasting productiong of antibodies against both meningitis types B and C
 – the most common in Europe.

The road to even a vaccine candidate is long and winding. But we have come up with an effective proof of concept. Our sugar-based barcode tweaked with fluorine has great potential to protect against meningitis, but also other bacteria” – concludes Seeberger.